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Should "forever chemicals" be banned from makeup?

As a makeup enthusiast, I try my best to support sustainable brands, but otherwise, I rarely consider what's in the products I use. As long as they make my features pop and don’t irritate my skin, we’re good. But new research suggests they might deserve greater scrutiny. According to a study released today, makeup sold in the U.S. and Canada commonly contains a class of chemicals associated with numerous health problems, the Washington Post reported. Worse still, the newspaper pointed out that brands often didn't list them on their product labels. Should these ingredients — nicknamed "forever chemicals" for their inability to degrade — be banned?

Scientists at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana University, and other institutions focused on synthetic chemicals known as polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS for short, according to the Post. PFAS are oil- and water-resistant, which is why we tend to see them in nonstick cookware, food wrappers — and cosmetics, where they provide a glossy sheen and waterproof properties. Long-term exposure to these chemicals has been associated with infertility risks, lowered immunity, and certain cancers, the Post said, as well as worse COVID-19 outcomes.

The researchers analyzed 231 products for fluorine, a marker for the presence of PFAS, the Post reported. Fluorine appeared in 47% of mascaras, 48% of lip products, and 56% of foundations. The study didn’t name specific brands, but a EurekAlert press release noted that many of these products were advertised as “long-lasting” and “wear-resistant.” The findings, published in Environmental Science and Technology Letters, are consistent with earlier, smaller studies that detected fluorine in makeup sold in Japan and Europe, per the Post.

Also concerning: The newspaper said that when the researchers conducted further tests on 29 products, they found that all of them contained PFAS — but only one listed PFAS on the label.

"The types of products that tested positive for high levels of fluorine — and thus likely to contain PFAS — are often used close to and around the eyes and lips," where they might be more easily absorbed or ingested, Whitney Bowe, a clinical assistant professor of dermatology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Medical Center, who wasn’t involved in the study, told CNN.

It's important to stress that, as the Post noted, we don’t know how much of the PFAS in makeup our bodies absorb or ingest. But we do know that makeup sits in landfills or trickles down drains before making its way into our soil and waterways. Since they don’t degrade, PFAS are dubbed “forever chemicals,” EurekAlert said, contaminating groundwater for decades as a result.

Graham Peaslee, a professor of physics at the University of Notre Dame and the study’s principal investigator, along with scientists not involved in the study, told the Post that they support tighter restrictions on PFAS, or at least more stringent labeling requirements for them. So far, California and Maryland have announced bans on toxic chemicals in makeup, the Post reported, but they don’t kick in until 2025. Today, Senators Susan Collins of Maine and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut introduced the No PFAS in Cosmetics Act, which would require the FDA to ban these chemicals from makeup.

Companies are taking action, too. In 2018, L’Oreal stated it would phase out PFAS from its products, per the Post. CNN cited a report finding that retail giants like Target, Walmart, and CVS are also mindful of toxic chemicals in their beauty products, including those marketed to women of color. "Research shows that women of color have higher levels of toxic chemicals related to beauty products in their bodies,” Taylor Morton, director of environmental health and education at WE ACT for Environmental Justice, told CNN upon the report’s release.

The new study suggests that PFAS probably aren’t safe for our bodies or for the environment, for that matter. At the very least, requiring brands to list PFAS on their product labels would allow us to decide for ourselves whether using them is worth the risk.